WCAG 3.0 is the future version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, aimed at making all types of digital content accessible for all users. Here’s what we know so far about the changes.
This article was updated on 3rd October 2023.
What is WCAG 3.0?
WCAG 3.0 is the future version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The current version is WCAG 2.1, with a slightly modified version WCAG 2.2 mooted to launch in after October 2023. The Guidelines emerged from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative. This was set up in 1999 to democratise the web, off the back of W3C’s work to ensure HTML pages (the building block for all websites) are globally compatible. The WCAG are critical to any organisation wanting (or legally required, in the case of the UK public sector) to make its web content accessible to all types of people regardless of their digital skills and (dis)ability. The WCAG are periodically updated to reflect changes in technology and design thinking.
WCAG considers impairments of vision, sight, motor control, speech, hearing and thinking and understanding (such as dyslexia, autism or language difficulties). Developers and content creators use the Guidelines when creating and/or reviewing their digital design and content to remove as many barriers as possible to people living with accessibility challenges. This covers a huge variety of factors, including font size, visual contrast, captions, language usage, optimisation for people using assistive technology such as the screen readers used by blind people, and far more besides. Cyber-Duck uses WCAG and other accessibility guidelines and country regulations to ensure it is baked into our design thinking and development process.
Why has WCAG 3.0 been developed?
WCAG 3.0 was released as a public working draft in December 2021, with the latest Editor's draft released on 20th July 2023 (with a great part of the Guidelines still in the official ‘Exploratory’ or 'Placeholder' stage and none at the Refining or Mature stages). The final Guidelines are not expected for several years to come.
The main aim of WCAG 3.0 is to “make digital products including web, ePub, PDF, applications, mobile apps, and other emerging technologies more accessible and usable to people with disabilities”. In short, the Guidelines need to support accessibility for a whole host of different usage cases than the 1999 group could ever have conceived of. This aim is reflected by the subtle change in the acronym; WCAG 3.0 is is being used as it’s a familiar acronym but is actually short for W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0, content falling by the wayside.
WCAG 3.0 also aims to be more flexible, easier to use and to have a conformance model – that measures or scores whether a product conforms to WCAG or not – that better reflects the user experience of people with diverse disabilities. It’s also designed to allow for more frequent iterative updates than previous WCAG versions to account for the continual advancements in tech and digital content types.
How is WCAG 3.0 different from WCAG 2.X?
Ironically, one of the main criticisms levelled at WCAG (which we agree with) is that it’s pretty inaccessible itself: difficult to understand and use, written in dense, almost ‘legalese’ style, in a long scrolling policy document, with lots of in-group technical terms. This makes it almost impossible to use without accessibility and/or tech experts to help translate for real world usage.
WCAG 3.0 has made changes to tackle this. What’s currently a ‘success criteria’ in WCAG 2.X is now defined as the ‘guideline’ itself in WCAG 3.0. These guidelines are meant to be a “high-level, plain-language version of the content for managers, policy makers, individuals who are new to accessibility” that “provide information on accessibility practices that address documented user needs of people with disabilities”.
Underneath each guideline will be multiple, granular supporting ‘outcomes’ similar to the current WCAG 2.X ‘success criteria’ focused on specific, practical desired results that determine whether those user needs are met. This makes them simpler in some ways but also far more numerous than current WCAG 2.X ‘success criteria’.
These ‘outcomes’ will come complete with testable criteria and information on how to score them. And underneath the outcomes will be technology-specific ‘methods’ with detailed information on how to meet each one, such as resources, how to test, code examples etc.
This is a significant improvement, but overall, the document is still very jargon heavy. We can’t see WCAG explainers, checklists and summaries disappearing soon, nor expert help to fully implement them!
WCAG’s continuing complexity problem
Another criticism of the Guidelines is that they’re costly to implement. For example, it takes a relatively large amount of human involvement to test and verify conformance to the Guidelines. That seems unchanged, perhaps even made worse, with the new scoring system and broader testing requirements we’ll explain further on.
This is particularly challenging for larger and/or more dynamic websites with complex functionality, which are often reliant on third-party plugins such as embedding maps or videos. These plugins might be tested and found conformant initially, but then subsequent versions are not as the Guidelines evolve or changes are made to the plugins. A case in point being the dismantling of Twitter’s accessibility team and changes/charging for its API.
Unfortunately, WCAG 3.0 itself continues in this vein, as it isn’t backwards compatible with previous versions such as WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 due to the structural changes above and the resulting new testing and scoring system. It’s effectively an alternative set of guidelines, albeit with much overlap.
So, while content conforming to WCAG 2.2 A and AA level is likely to meet the minimum conformance level of WCAG 3, you won’t be able to carry over your WCAG 2.X compliance, you’ll need to reassess and retest your digital content again against WCAG 3.0. Not a small task – or indeed budget - for large, complex sites.
WCAG 3.0 is more inclusive
Despite those challenges (and recognising that putting in place clear, non-ambivalent global guidelines to deliver accessible digital for diverse user needs is no mean feat), WCAG 3.0 promises some really positive changes.
WCAG 3.0 is more inclusive than previous versions, providing for levels of impairment within each functional category and focusing more on broader user experience than pure technical requirements. This allows for a tailored experience to suit a person’s particular and potentially multiple needs, as opposed to the current WCAG 2.X series’ true/false statement success criteria. The true/false approach simply doesn’t work well to incorporate accessibility requirements for cognitive impairment or low - but not no - vision, for example.
In the latest version of the working draft there are now 23 guidelines, described as “a list of topics which we expect to explore more thoroughly in future drafts”. All detail has been removed from them and it’s a huge increase from the half-dozen noted in the previous drafts (again with a heavy caveat this is all subject to change!). But there are definite indications towards inclusion by design. For example, they list Keyboard support, Mobile and pointer support, Audio and video alternatives, Flexible Views, Prevent harm, and Process Cognitive Load among others, which encompass how digital content needs to meet the full variety of physical and cognitive needs. All of which is a positive direction.
WCAG's testing and conformance system more flexible but demanding
The Testing and Conformance sections in the latest Editor’s Draft is very much in the Exploratory stage. But we do know that the more inclusive approach and the restructuring of the guideline model means WCAG 3.0 will have a more flexible scoring system that generates more informative, practical, holistic results.
The new draft now sets out three goals of the conformance model:
it should encourage continual improvement, not just ‘I’ve hit AA, so the job’s done’
it better reflects the nuanced lived user experiences of people with disabilities accessing digital content that in reality differs from the current pass/fail approach of WCAG 2.X
content doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ "provided the impact of them upon users with disabilities is not substantial".
This is great news as it addresses the problem with previous WCAG versions of having no ‘hierarchy’ in the conformance criteria where every false has the same conformance weight even if it doesn’t affect user experience equally. Previously in WCAG 2.X if a site met all Level AA criteria, yet only 24 of the 25 Level A criteria, it wouldn’t be compliant with WCAG at all, although it would likely be very accessible for most people!
WCAG 3.0 by contrast includes the concept of ‘critical issues’ (giving ‘Text Alternative Available’ and ‘Translates Speech and Non-Speech Audio’ as examples of this) and of ‘issue severity’. This provides organisations with far clearer data on where the digital product can improve, as well as actionable steps to make these improvements.
Two methods of evaluation – Testing and Assertions
The latest draft then describes two main approaches to how accessibility will be evaluated. The first largely follows previous drafts, focused on Outcomes with tests. These would be both ‘Quantitative’ and ‘Qualitative’. The first dealing with objectively verifiable conditions, there is Alt Text or there isn’t, minimum text contrast is met, or it isn’t. Qualitative tests will look to see how user experience meets each Guideline and Outcome.
In both cases, testing’s applied to different scopes in terms of the content: ‘items’, ‘views’, ‘user processes’, and the ‘aggregate’. Items being the smallest testable unit, such a label or a drop-down menu. Views being everything experienced at a single moment in time, such a web page or the entire screen of a mobile app. User processes are the series of actions, views and items needed to complete an activity, for example the experience of buying groceries online from login to successful check out confirmation. And finally, the aggregate combines all of that into what collectively makes up a website, app or, as WCAG 3.0 aspires to in the future, an entire virtual reality environment.
But here’s where the latest draft differs. It introduces the idea that even if you do these Quantitative and Qualitative tests, content may still not be usable in practice by people with different disabilities and the second, new Assertions approach. Assertions are defined in WCAG 3.0 as people or organisations making a “a formal claim of fact” that they’ve followed and formally documented procedures to design for and improve accessibility including things like assistive technology testing, usability testing, “heuristic evaluation” and “plain language review” by relevant experts.
Grades of success
The latest draft looks at several potential different ways to achieve this model. In terms of being able to say you are compliant or conformant with WCAG 3.0, another major change from WCAG 2.X is that the minimum conformance level is now called Bronze, with conformance Levels A, AA, and AAA replaced with Bronze, Silver, and Gold status. However, it’s not an exact replacement due to wider testing requirements; the basic Bronze level of WCAG 3.0 believed to roughly equate to WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
In addition, the draft sets out several different approaches to achieving and evaluating desired outcomes they are exploring, including issue severity (such as “critical”, “medium” and “high”), Adjectival ratings (e.g., “fail, pass, exceptional”) and a percentages score. The latter being mooted as being used to judge Silver and Gold level conformance, for example if content passes a certain percentage of outcomes and assertions or achieves a certain percentage at set adjectival rating.
What this all means in practice is that while conformance and testing is more flexible and on various forms of sliding scales allowing for improvements not just pass/fail, it will not be easier by any means! And will absolutely require large amounts of manual testing, with automated tests being of limited scope.
So, what should businesses do about WCAG 3.0?
1. Don’t rush it.
If your business was compliant with the WCAG 2.X series, implementing WCAG 3.0 as quickly as possible when it finally arrives may not be the best solution. The old standard will go on being acceptable for many years to come, and it will take a while for everyone to get up to speed with the new system.
However, you may want to implement WCAG 3.0 at some point, as WCAG 2.X doesn’t accommodate all disabilities or combinations of accessibility needs, as does its successor.
2. Keep an eye on the law.
Private sector websites are not currently compelled to implement WCAG, but this could change. It’s already a legal requirement for government websites in many countries to obtain WCAG 2.1 level AA conformance, and if these laws are applied across the board, there could be significant consequences.
Case in point: in 2000, a blind man successfully sued the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games for US$20,000 because their website was not accessible enough for blind users. Because this committee was an arm of government, it was subject to the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. Similar applies too in the UK under the expansively titled 2018 Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR).
3. WCAG might be optional, but accessibility is not.
While WCAG accessibility conformance itself may not be mandatory, many countries do have strict guidelines when it comes to discrimination based on disability, so businesses already face legal requirements to make at least some accessibility efforts.
For example, the UK Equality Act 2010 requires organisations to make “reasonable adjustments” to make sure their services are accessible and do not exclude disabled people because of their impairment. The problem is that there is a grey area in terms of exactly how much accessibility is sufficient, making it just a matter of time before governments make WCAG a legal requirement.
If you consider the reputational damage you can suffer from a discrimination lawsuit, implementing some of the basic WCAG guidance (such as providing text alternatives – ‘alt text’ – for non-text content) sooner rather than later is just plain common sense, as well as good business. Research consistently shows that 70% of users with access needs will click away and go elsewhere to spend their money when met with an inaccessible site. That’s not even counting people with situational or less intense access needs who do the same.
4. Pick a strategy.
If your business does begin to take steps towards WCAG 3.0 compliance, you're well ahead of the curve. It’s still only a working document at this point, and the final version is likely to push into 2024 if not well beyond. You therefore have time to plan a structured approach.
Many companies find that the best option is to hire website accessibility specialists. That might be an agency like Cyber-Duck, who integrate accessibility into all its digital transformation projects, from diverse user research and testing through to inclusive design and accessible build, or specialist accessibility consultants who typically focus just on the diagnostic and recommendations side of the equation.
Either way, both will ensure that robust accessibility testing is done with a wide range of diverse users. If a website redesign is on your horizon, you can wait until then to build the new site with accessibility woven into its fabric, instead of trying to bolt it on afterwards. A thoughtfully designed website ticks the two important boxes of improving the user experience for all users, and compliance with all the relevant accessibility standards.
5. Help is at hand.
Accessibility is complicated, which makes it encouraging to see the hard work the W3C has already done to make this transition as smooth as possible. Its Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, which houses the Silver Task Force, is working towards the finalised version of WCAG 3.0 and has a Silver Community Group that is open to the public. Any business can make suggestions towards the Guidelines or get help where they find implementation challenges.
The future of your business with WCAG
Given that there's a good chance WCAG standards will eventually become legal requirements, not to mention that they make good business sense, all organisations producing digital content should know where they fall short in terms of accessibility. By achieving WCAG 2.X standards now, if you haven’t done so already, you can still use them for several more years and be able to transition to WCAG 3.0 compliance more easily, particularly if supported by a partner who is keeping a careful eye on the latest developments.
In either case, you might want to talk to a team that specialises in accessibility by design to better explore your needs and goals, and to create inclusive experiences that meet your users’ needs. So don’t hesitate to get in touch today.